ANDY: A Popera

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It took me a while to like opera.  Growing up, there was a lot of classical music playing in our home.  I remember my first, and one of my all-time favorite, dates when I was very young and my Dad took me the orchestra on a Saturday night.  We had a very fancy dinner at H.A. Winston (corner of 15th and Locust) and then enjoyed the orchestra.  You never forget your first time in the Academy of Music and, to this day, I am still in awe of that majestic concert hall every time I am fortunate enough to see a show there.  I even took a classical music class my first semester in college, as all good liberal arts majors are required to do, but even after going to see La Boheme at The Met in New York, I still was not enamored.  Until the movie “Philadelphia.”  Mara Callas’ La Momma Morta may be the most beautifully haunting song I have ever heard.  And I finally understood how one could be moved by a song in a language that you did not speak.  I cannot articulate how that works, but I now know.  And that is how I came to enjoy and appreciate opera and welcome it to my repertoire of music.

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The usual photo, you know, with a Andy Warhol tomato soup can costume.

When I saw that the Opera Philadelphia and the Bearded Ladies Cabaret were collaborating for an opera, Andy: A Popera,  about Andy Warhol during the fringe festival, I was…well, if you have been paying even the little bit of attention to these blog posts, you can fill in the rest of that sentence, and in many different ways.

On a September Sunday evening, Susan and I ventured to a warehouse on American Street in Kensington for the production. Immediately, I knew this not going to be my momma’s opera.  We were encouraged to wear name tags, with any name we wanted.  I chose Edie, Susan chose Lili (for Lili Taylor who starred in “I Shot Andy Warhol”) and directed to have some “punch.”   We had time to take a selfie in a giant tomato soup can and then we were ushered into the warehouse next door.

The general first act of the opera was Andy Warhol trying to figure out how to fit best into America.  He decided to do so by replicating himself and then we have a bunch of Andys all around him/us, a bunch of Marilyn Monroes, Edie, Valerie and Joe also joined him/us.  It is one big chaotic party that ends the first act.  Oh, after Valerie shoots the first Andy, that is.

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We walked by Andy, after going through the giant vagina of course, to get back to our seats after intermission.

We come to the second act through a different entrance (I also had to walk through a giant vagina) and pass Andy’s hospital bed where he is half alive, half dead surround by his other Andys.

It is now Valerie’s opera who goes on, just a tad long, about how Andy has appropriated everyone’s own uniqueness in the name of art.

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The death scene was truly operatic- drawn out, over top and breathtaking.

Then Candy mounts her own, quite breathtaking, death scene that immortalizes her forever.  Valerie is jettisoned and Andy is back.  Scene.  Throughout the whole opera, the cast is continually coming into the audience, encouraging selfies, turning the video camera on the audience, etc.  I felt like I was a part of the production and I did absolutely nothing.

It was pretty extraordinary and I kept thinking back to it during the week.  I just could not come to any conclusion as to what is art and what is opera.  And, I am pretty sure that was the intention all along.

27 shows to go, 253 days left…

Ride

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One of the things I love about this year of 50 shows is that my friends are so generous in sharing their music and concert experiences with me. In keeping with that spirit, I believe that it is my duty, obligation and responsibility to say yes when asked. And, I have yet to be disappointed.

Last night, my good friend Michael invited me to join him and others to see Ride at the TLA. Michael has this group of, besides being some of the greatest guys I know, friends who see a lot of music that I have literally never heard of. Bands, that at times, I think they are making up just to mess with me. Ride was no exception.

I love the TLA. This intimate (capacity around 800), but mighty club, on South Street was one of the first clubs I went to see live music when I moved back to Philly in the early 90s. It just feels rock and roll. At least, that is my positive spin on a club where the bathrooms have never been updated, the floor is always, I mean always, sticky and you can barely see in front of you it is so dark. And that is when the lights are on. That being said, I rarely turn down an invite to see a show there.

I did not do any research before the show except to ask people if they had heard of Ride. The most common response as “yea, they still playing?” Then, “they are shoe gazers.” According to Wikipedia- “shoegazing (also known as shoegaze) is a subgenre of alternative rock that emerged from the United Kingdom in the late 1980s and reached peak popularity in the early 1990s. The term “shoegazing” was initially devised by the British music press as a gibe meant to ridicule the stage presence of groups of the period, who stood still during live performances in a detached, introspective, non-confrontational state, often with their heads down.”

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No Shoe gazing here.

Someone described them as a psychedelic band and one should consider wearing earplugs during it, since they are so loud. What? That doesn’t make sense to me. Hmmm. At this point, I am convinced they are not a real band. In fact, I am starting to think that they are like that band in the movie “High Fidelity” that the clerks would ask you if you liked, just so they make fun of your lack of obscure band knowledge.   An inside baseball game type of band. So, imagine my surprise when the show was sold out and the place was packed. It should also be noted that if you saw these guys in the late 80s, you were ahead of time, now they were presented by XPN and you can buy earplugs in the lobby. Sigh.

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We got some psychedelic thing going on here.

The bottom line is I really liked these guys. And a lot. Still unclear how I would classify them, but they knew their stuff and played incredibly well together. I found myself dancing almost immediately and getting in the grove from start to finish. They were definitely psychedelic, but not overly so. I know that because I did not morph into my deadhead dance, which is a sure sign. And I am happy to report that I did not purchase, nor need, earplugs. They also played this one song where the music and the black and white light show mesmerized the crowd into silence and stillness. It was really intense and I am not sure how that happened. One of the great things about seeing a totally new band is that there is no anxiety of “I hope they play my favorite song.” It is quite liberating to just be able to enjoy every song as played. And that I did.

28 shows to go, 255 days left…

Alabama Shakes

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Back in March when I made my annual pilgrimage to the Mann box office to buy my season’s tickets (to avoid the dreaded service fees), I thought the last show of the season would be a tempered time in fall weather and a mellow way to end a great Mann season. Boy, was I wrong on all levels. Alabama Shakes was the most crowded, most raucous show of the season in 80-degree weather.

Let me get this out of the way- Brittany Howard, Alabama Shakes front woman, is a badass. Bad. Ass. Badass.

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Drive By Truckers. We had a great seats.

We got there in time to catch the opener, Drive By Truckers (DBT). Interesting fact about these guys, a couple of years ago Alabama Shakes was opening for them. DBT discovered this group and took them under their wing. Now they are opening for them. I love the humility of it all. Obviously, I do not have any real information, but I like to believe that it means artists are completely supportive of each other, they are all about the music and as along as everyone gets to keep playing, who really cares who headlines the show. Again, that is what I choose to believe.

DBT had a longer than usual set and they were pretty good. I am not sure I would go see them alone, but I enjoyed them. They have that Americana sound, sometimes like Johnny Cash, sometimes like Willie Nelson from the “Across the Borderline” album. They have been playing together for a while, so they had that great playing together for a long time vibe. I was sad I didn’t like them more than I did; after all they backed up Bettye LaVette on her comeback album and wrote a fictional opera about a Lynyrd Skynyrd type rock band. I guess the best thing I like about them is that they discovered Alabama Shakes.

Brittany Howard came out on stage to thunderous applause. The Mann was the most crowded than my previous other shows and the wooden roof was vibrating with energy when she launched, almost assaulted, her first song. From there, it was game on.

This 26-year-old African American, not model thin, woman is fronting a 5 member rock and roll white male band with 3 back up singers. They are described as a roots rock band, but they are so much more. I guess they are described that way, because there is no neat description for their music. There was huge gospel influence, lots of blues and rock and roll, and hard-core rock and roll. I read somewhere that one of their first shows they covered the likes of Led Zeppelin, James Brown, Otis Redding, and AC/DC. That gives you an idea.

Here is IMG_0004what I do know. It was an incredibly emotional show. Just when you thought you could not dance, hoot, clap harder, Brittany took you on to another level. She screamed, wailed, whispered, shook her glasses and gave so much of herself during the show that I actually started to worry for her. I am unclear how she will keep this pace up for a long career. Good lord, she is only 26. What was also interesting is that while she had a huge stage presence, there was absolutely no chit chat or crowd interaction. Maybe she said hello in the beginning and thank you at the end, but that was basically it.   While I continue to worry about her pace and her voice for longevity, my main takeaway is “Badass, Bad, Ass, Badass.”

29 shows to go, 257 days left…IMG_0006

Dr. Dog, The Swamp is On

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For the past 18 years, September means Fringe Festival. It is a 17-day extravaganza of performances, art, cabarets, happenings and very late nights. In the beginning, it was a lot less curated and you never knew what you were going to see. One year, my friends put on a show on four corners of Old City as couples arguing about being late. Folks walking by had no idea if it was a real argument and/if they should intervene. It is interesting to note that the only time a bystander intervened was when an interracial couple was arguing. For a couple of years, I would bartend at the late night cabaret and saw a ton of acts, some really good and, some, well, some were really good. I miss those old days when I could stay up all night and still got to work the next day and function. Sigh…Anyway, as the Fringe totally exploded it gets overwhelming to pick some things to see. To make sure I see at least one thing each year, I always make a point of seeing whatever Pig Iron Theater Company is doing.

Pig Iron is experimental and experiential theater, but approachable. I know this, because I get it. I am always excited to see what they will produce. So when I saw that Pig Iron was producing something in collaboration with Dr. Dog, I immediately bought tickets.

I had never seen Dr. Dog live, but knew about them, local guys done good, XPN favorites, etc. I was intrigued that this little band could come up with something that Pig Iron would want to be part of.  I was a little surprised to observe that the crowd was more Dr. Dog and less Pig Iron, which to me was good and means Fringe is continually evolving and bringing younger folks in.  The more I read ahead of time, the more confused I became and finally let it go and was ready to enjoy it. Here is the basic outline:  for years, Dr. Dog has been receiving strange and psychedelic messages from a swamp dweller, Phrases. The idea is that Dr. Dog and scientists are going to do everything possible to make contact and figure this whole thing out. Seems pretty clear, right?

When we got to Union Transfer, I could not quite figure who was part of the show and who was not. Clearly the folks walking around looking like secret service were part of it, right? I don’t know; it could have been pre-pope preparation. The guy selling bootleg cassettes outside the theater beforehand was just a little kooky, right? Nope, part of it. I think. The guy yelling he wanted to have Scott’s (band member) baby? Still unclear. Here is what I do know. It was brilliant, absolutely brilliant.

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The boy band goes gently into the swamp….

The band members were really good actors. Of course the Pig Iron folks were great, but it was also interesting seeing them somewhat take a back seat to the band. There was one song that was really trippy and the essence of the whole psychedelic vibe. I found myself slowly being enveloped in the music right along with them without realizing it. By the end of the song when the guitar player playing upside down on a member of Pig Iron’s back, it just made sense. I was sleepy right along with the cast and did not even know how it happened.

The whole thing was kind of dreamy like that and there is still some question if Dr. Dog sold their souls to get the “song of the century” or if the swamp creature was the devil and made it happen or was the boy band always in Dr. Dog’s destiny. See, lots of questions. That, my friend, is the fringe festival right there.

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I took a lot of really great and clear photos of the swamp thing, until I looked at them later. hmmmmm

Dr. Dog then played a concert after the show, clearly two very different shows, but to not cause any sort of controversy, I will count this as one show. And I will definitely go to see Dr. Dog when they come back through town. I need to support artists like this who are so creative and not just your average “boy band.”

30 shows to go, 263 days left…

Made in America

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If there ever was going to be a year where I was going to attend Made in America, the Labor Day Jay Z curated festival on the Parkway, this was the year. I have been intrigued by it but always found an excuse not to go. This year, I finally had an excuse to go. Just for fun, I put out a call on Facebook the day before to see if any of my “friends” would be there. I got no less than, I kid you not, 6 responses from friends whose kids were going. That set the stage for the age thing I was going to face.

I didn’t have a ticket so first things first I had to get inside. It turned out to be really easy. I hung out by the will call tent and asked everyone if they had an extra ticket. In about 4 minutes, I had secured a $60 ticket for the day from a very nice, and yes young, man. It probably helped that the gates opened at noon and I was there at 2 pm, waaaay before the real crowds showed up or the crowd who eventually showed up was even awake.  At this point, I decided to start tweeting under the hash tag #oldandinthewaymia (you can see all of my tweets from the day @sheilaballen). For those young folks out there, Old and in the Way was a 1970s bluegrass supergroup fronted by David Grisham and Jerry Garcia and MIA for Made in America. It was just too delicious a description not to use. By the way, the first, and only, person I knew was a friend of my 22 year old nephew. Perfect!

I really had no concept how this whole thing was laid out, so even before getting my bearings, I ended up at the Skate stage. There I saw a very intense, very loud with a lot of hair and not a lot of eye contact band, Creephoid. I stayed for half a song and decided now was a good time to get my bearings.

The other reason I wanted to attend Made in America this year is to see how this whole thing would work during the Pope visit with fencing in the parkway. I saw it, and I am not at all convinced we will be able to do the Pope visit correctly. There were only, 70,000 (!) people inside on Saturday and there was not an inch to maneuver. I am pretty good at finding the outside beltway to get around shows and large festival grounds and there just wasn’t one by 5 that day. It was wall to wall of people and made me very nervous. This was also the biggest show I may have even been to. I think a big show is 25,000 at the Wells Fargo Center and get annoyed at the 150 people jammed in at a sold out show at the Boot and Saddle. A 70,000 person concert is big, I mean really big, and quite overwhelming. Anyway, back to the music.

One of my music goals this year is to learn the difference between hip hop and rap and see if I like either. The Made in America festival was a perfect place for that research, so I headed over to the Liberty Stage to see Earl Sweatshirt (you know I am not making up these band names, right? I am just not that creative). I could not even get close to this stage, because it was packed with a very diverse, except not in age, group of kids who were singing ever single obscenity, misogynist, crude, racial slur, I mean, lyric right along with him. I fought my first instinct to place my hands over the closest young woman’s ears next to me and hum loudly so she wouldn’t hear and tried to “enjoy” the music. Nope, not going to happen. Not my thing, not ever. I immediately left. Ok, I gave it a shot. I am not even sure if he was rapping or what, but I did not like his set, who am I kidding- ¼ of a song, at all. #oldandinthewaymia

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Me and Frances Quinlan from Hop Along. Guess i am not too old to be creepy super fan.

I was now getting a little nervous. First act-head banger, second act-rap and it was becoming increasingly more crowded. I knew I was not going to last the whole day, but thought I would at least last an hour. Gave myself a talking too, bought a massive beer, and headed to the main stage to catch Vic Mensa. This guy was actually ok. He is a young hip hop artist from Chicago who had a great band and I could understand his lyrics. Not that I knew any of his songs, but I found myself swaying a bit to the music and got really excited when he launched into a cover of a Nirvana tune so “all the white boys can go crazy out there.” I took that directive as a 50 year old white woman to ramp up my dancing a bit. #oldandinthewaymia. That was fun and I felt, for the first time that day, that I was back in the groove and could find some acts to enjoy.

I headed back over to the Skate stage, which I later nicknamed the XPN stage, since they were a lot of great local bands there and some I even knew of. Also, I came to the closest seeing anyone near my age at this stage. Later on, it turned out that the people profiled as being in my age group were two reporters I recognized and a mom of a member in the band. Sigh. #oldandintwaymia. During the day I saw Hop Along, Waxaahatchee and Strand of Oaks on this stage. It was great and not crowded. I mean I had seen Strand of Oaks at Union Transfer last year during a sold out show and could not get even close enough to count how many people played in the band. Here I was in the front row and heard their conversation as their mikes went out and were discussing doing an acoustic and non instrumental set. Hop Along is fronted by Frances Qunilan and started as a “conceptualized as a freak-folk solo act,” whatever that means. I do know that she can wail on the guitar as well as she can belt out tunes that are interesting and intriguing. And that is enough for me. Waxahatchee is composed of twin sisters from Alabama (and the band is named after Waxahatchee Creek, in their home state) and I first learned of them from a JUMP magazine article when Katie Cutchfield moved to West Philadelphia and started cranking out these indie albums. They have a great energy on stage and each sister is multi talented in different ways. They were adorable and I will definitely try and catch them, long with Hop Along, in Philadelphia for their own shows.

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De La Sol on the big stage and Jumbo tron.

In between my campout at the Skate stage, I headed back to the main stage to see De La Soul. And this was where it all came together. I like hip hop, I really do. I don’t like rap, I really don’t. De La Sol is old school hip hop group formed in 1987 and are known for “eclectic sampling, quirky lyrics, and contributions to the evolution of the jazz rap and alternative hip hop subgenres.” I listened to them some back in the day and it was very cool to hear how great they still sounded and that they are still relevant. At one point they asked if anyone was “even close to 35” in the crowd. I had no idea how to respond to that. That aside, I was psyched to dance and move my arms above my head with the rest of the crowd and not feel like a fraud.

I decided by 7ish, I had enough. I was going to try one last time to take in some rap and catch Meek Mill, Philly’s own and current boyfriend of Nicki Minaj, at the main stage, but I just could not muster up the enthusiasm nor will for the long and crowded commute across the festival grounds.

Here are my takeaways:

  • Made in America is for the young.
  • I do not understand spending time in a DJ tent at a festival with 25+ live acts.
  • I like hip hop, but not rap.
  • We are screwed for the Pope visit.
  • It was an incredibly young, but racially diverse crowd, which not only gives me hope for the future, but reinforces my belief that music is the greatest unifier we have as a society.
  • Lastly, I am really glad I went, but more importantly, even happier that I never have to go again.

31 shows to go, 269 days left…

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I am smiling here, because I am on my way out and survived my first, and last, Made in America festival.